Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

The following is two excerpts from Christan Smith’s paper, “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith, based on the research of sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. I think one could read his paper and recognize that the bigger challenge for Christianity is not Secularism or other faiths, but an anemic, non-transformative version of our own faith. One could also make the argument that this is probably the dominant Christian faith worldwide, except perhaps in some non-pluralistic societies,  or where REAL persecution of Christians is common. But that is conjectural.

“Namely, we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary teenagers in the United States is what we might call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews with U.S. teenagers, sounds something like this:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

(I)t appears that only a minority of U.S. teenagers are naturally absorbing by osmosis the traditional substantive content and character of the religious traditions to which they claim to belong. For, it appears to us, another popular religious faith—Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—is colonizing many historical religious traditions and, almost without anyone noticing, converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness. Exactly how this process is affecting American Judaism and Mormonism we refrain from further commenting on, since these faiths and cultures are not our primary fields of expertise. Other more accomplished scholars in those areas will have to examine and evaluate these possibilities in greater depth. But we can say that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity” in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.”

Pascal’s Wager in Pluralistic Cultural Context

Blaise PascalBlaise Pascal developed “Pascal’s Wager“, drawn from Thoughts (Pensees) that argues for faith in God over and against doubt or rejection (translated):

Yes, but you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose then? Let us see: since a choice must be made, let us see which offers you the least interest. You have two things to lose: the true and the good; and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to avoid: error and wretchedness. Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more affronted by choosing one rather than the other. That is one point cleared up. But your happiness? Let us weight up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist.”

The basic argument is essentially game theory. The way to minimize risk is belief as opposed to unbelief (in God). However, William James in his essay “The Will to Believe” quotes Mahdi (not sure which one… “Mahdi” is a title from Islamic Tradition… perhaps he was referring to the one who was part of the 19th century Mahdist revolt in British Sudan.)

“I am the Expected One who God has created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the light of the sun. Weigh, then your infinite gain if I am genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not!”

The argument is essentially the same. However, at least from a Christian standpoint, the argument seems much weaker. The idea that god (as described within the Islamic system) and his messenger should be believed since the gain is much greater than the loss, only makes sense if there is no competing system.

Pascal’s Wager essentially works in a setting where there are two essential positions: Unbelief (or nominalism) in a religious system versus Belief in that same religious system. Things fall apart in a pluralistic culture.

Does that mean that nothing can be said? To me, it might be a solid wager in the broadest sense. There is a basic soundness that believing in God if God exists is of greater benefit then the loss associated with believing in God if God does not exist.

Still I am not sure that Pascal’s Wager is all that useful in missions. Nearly everywhere now, cultures are either pluralistic or are dualistic where Christianity is an outsider sytem. The idea that having religious faith “makes sense” on some level may be comforting to some. However, in a pluralistic society, there are too many options.

Still, we live in a time when the vestiges of logical positivism remain (at least for the moment) so there are still some that feel that faith and truth are at war. Works such as that by Pascal and William James (and the various challenges to naivety of scientific exuberance, “Popperism,” and positivism) help some realize that the realm of faith can be an intellectually safe place to dwell.

It seems to me that Christians should avoid the extremes of placing faith in stark contrast to logic (faith against cognition) on one side and “scientifically proving” faith on the other side.

With the growth of post-modernism, faith is given more respect (as long as it is tinged by doubt). Faith is necessary (even unbelief takes a certain amount of faith of one sort). The growing challenge is that faith communities must learn to welcome both “thinkers” and “feelers.” Both are made by God and both have a place in His church.

Interfaith Dialogue… a Simple Presentation

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_10446995″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Interfaith Dialogue” target=”_blank”>Interfaith Dialogue</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”; target=”_blank”>presentations</a> from <a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>